The Villages - Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry

Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry (2016)

The Villages

I’m driving north on the Florida Turnpike on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth.

Not literally, of course. The Fountain of Youth is purely mythical, like the Easter Bunny, or edible vegan food. My destination is a real place, a place where—if the stories are true—you can lead a wild, carefree and passionate lifestyle, possibly involving sex, even if you are a really, really old person, defined as “a person my age.”

What is this place? It’s called The Villages. It’s the world’s largest retirement community and the fastest-growing city in the United States; it now has 115,000 residents, more than double what it had in 2010.

The Villages has received a lot of publicity in recent years because of the supposed wild swinging lifestyles led by some residents. Here, for example, is the headline of a Daily Mail story written after a widely publicized 2014 incident in which a sixty-eight-year-old married woman resident of The Villages was caught having sex in one of the community’s public squares with a forty-nine-year-old man who was not, if you want to get technical, her husband:

Ten women to every man, a black market in Viagra, and a “thriving swingers scene”: Welcome to The Villages, Florida, where the elderly residents down Sex on the Square cocktail in “honor” of woman, 68, arrested for public sex with toyboy

Around the same time BuzzFeed ran a feature about The Villages, calling it “a notorious boomtown for boomers who want to spend their golden years with access to 11 a.m. happy hours, thousands of activities, and no-strings-attached sex.”

Just about every feature story written about The Villages sooner or later—usually sooner—brings up sex, Viagra and the alleged increase in STDs among the residents. Writers, especially younger writers, tend to get freaked out by the concept of old people doing it.

The legend of wild times at The Villages got started with the 2008 book Leisureville by Andrew Blechman. It’s actually a well-researched, serious work that raises important issues involving aging, retirement and the concept of communities that don’t allow children to be residents. But what everybody remembers about Leisureville is a chapter about the sexual exploits of a retired biology teacher known as Mr. Midnight, which is the nickname he gave to his penis.

In the book, Mr. Midnight (the man, not the penis) is quoted as saying: “What you’ve got to understand is that there are at least ten women here to every guy. And they’re all hot and horny. It’s wonderful.”

Far be it from me to correct a former biology teacher, but it turns out that Mr. Midnight’s gender ratio for The Villages is a bit off: It’s more like ten women to every nine guys. As for the abundant availability of sex, I will tell you later what I found out about that. (Spoiler Alert: Nothing.)

But getting back to my quest. To reach The Villages, I get off the turnpike at the Wildwood (Ha!25) exit, where I stop briefly at the Florida Citrus Center, a store that sells all kinds of things that tourists need, including T-shirts and baby alligators. I’m stopping because I want to take a picture of my all-time favorite Florida tourism sign:

How many times have you said to yourself, “I want to buy a gator head, but I also want to buy wind chimes, and I don’t want to make two stops”? Me, too. That’s why I’m glad to know that the Florida Citrus Center is there for me.

I resume driving and soon enter The Villages, where if you tried to put up a sign like the one at the Florida Citrus Center, you would be executed without trial by officers of the Homeowners Association. The Villages—which covers thirty-two square miles spread over three counties—is very, very orderly. The houses are all one-story, all colored some shade of light beige or light gray and all subject to many strict rules regarding decorations and landscaping. The houses are set close together on a vast network of streets with the kinds of made-up names that people come up with when they’re writing bad novels or need a bunch of street names in a hurry—Barksdale Drive, Intrepid Terrace, Paisley Way, Nautilus Lane, Whisper Street, etc.

Everything—the houses, the yards, the streets, the sidewalks—is uniform in appearance and well maintained. There’s no litter, no graffiti, no commercial signs, no sketchy individuals walking around. In fact, there’s not a lot of walking: Most people are driving, and many of them are driving golf carts. The Villages has more than sixty thousand golf carts; there are special roads, tunnels and service stations for them, and many residents use them almost exclusively to get around. They love their golf carts, in The Villages; people spend thousands and thousands of dollars customizing them. In The Villages, your golf cart, unlike your house, can reflect the real, unique you.

I arrive at my hotel, the Waterfront Inn, which is in Lake Sumter Landing, one of The Villages’ three commercial areas or “Town Squares.” There are some people checking out a charity Christmas decoration auction in the lobby. Nobody appears to be having sex.

I check in, then head back out, driving to another Town Square, called Spanish Springs, which has a Spanish architectural theme. Each of the squares has a theme, kind of like Disney’s Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, etc., except instead of rides there are stores and restaurants. The buildings were all built recently, but in pretend old-fashioned style. Weirdly—at least, I find it weird—many of them have “historic plaques” out front on which are written elaborate, made-up histories about the made-up people who lived in this building decades ago, when neither the building nor the town existed.

Fake historic plaque.

Don’t get me wrong: Spanish Springs is nice. But it’s nice in the way Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A., is nice. Nice, but fake.

Standing in a fountain next to the square is a statue of the Founding Father of The Villages, Harold Schwartz.

Schwartz began what ultimately became The Villages as a mobile-home park in the 1970s. It was a modest endeavor until the early 1980s, when Schwartz brought in his son, H. Gary Morse, an advertising executive; together, they began to create a new kind of development. Instead of selling mobile-home lots, they started building an entire community—not just homes, but also stores, restaurants, swimming pools and golf courses. Many golf courses. They sold a lifestyle to retirees, and it was a nice lifestyle, safe and convenient and fun, and people loved it. The Villages grew like crazy, becoming increasingly upscale; the Schwartz/Morse family became very, very rich.

Both Schwartz and Morse have died, but the family—people capitalize it, The Family—still tightly controls The Villages and still owns just about everything except the private homes. Critics of The Family see it as secretive and sinister, but most residents of The Villages seem pretty happy with the way things run.

Every night, in all three of the Town Squares, there is live music. People come to listen, dance and—this is one area in which The Villages is far superior to Disney—drink alcoholic beverages sold from booths at reasonable prices. When I arrive in Spanish Springs, some older musicians (defined as “musicians who are probably younger than I am”) are setting up on a bandstand. They’re called the Caribbean Chillers and they go on at 5. It’s a cool night, but already a nice crowd is gathering, a couple hundred people. They’re taking green plastic chairs from stacks and arranging them around the bandstand. This is a nightly ritual.

I head to an alcohol booth—I’m the only customer—and order a glass of wine. The bartender looks at his watch and tells me that the two-for-one happy hour starts in twelve minutes, at 5 p.m.

“Is that what everybody’s waiting for?” I ask.

“They always do,” he says.

I tell him I want to start being happy now, so I pay $5 and he pours a generous amount of wine into a plastic cup. I sip my wine and study the crowd. It’s mostly couples, dressed casually; almost everybody’s wearing shorts or jeans, sneakers or sandals. Most of them are sitting on their green plastic chairs, patiently waiting for the music to start. Nobody appears to be having sex. Maybe they do that during happy hour.

At 5 p.m. sharp, the Caribbean Chillers, who are basically a Jimmy Buffett clone band, launch into their first song, a mellow country tune. There’s not much reaction from the crowd. That changes on the second song, which, you will be shocked to learn, is “Margaritaville.” Immediately, people are up and dancing.

It turns out that residents of The Villages really like to dance. It’s like being at a wedding or bar mitzvah when the DJ puts on some ancient Boomer favorite like “Sweet Home Alabama” and all the older people, all the aunts and uncles, swarm the floor and start lurching around while the young people watch from the sidelines and snicker. Except that here in The Villages, there are no young people, and nobody is snickering. Nobody here cares at all how you dance. This is one of the nicest things about The Villages.

The predominant style of dancing is what I would describe as “White Person.” There are three main types of White Person dancers:

1. People performing random freestyle moves such as you would have seen in a disco in 1973. This is how I dance.26 You see some of this at The Villages, but you see more of the other two types.

2. Couples who took dance lessons and are faithfully executing the steps they learned. These couples tend to dance with serious expressions, as if they are carrying out a set of instructions required to complete a two-person task, such as installing drapes.

3. Line dancers. This is by far the largest group. Line dancing is big in The Villages. And I’m not just talking about your simple line dances, such as your Electric Slide. I’m talking about elaborate line dances, complex, multi-step routines that you have to practice before you get out there in the mass of people all moving together, frowning, looking down at their feet, as they run through the steps in their heads: … two three now rockforward now back now turn two three now kick and left slide two three now …

The Caribbean Chillers play some more Jimmy Buffett. More people are arriving on their golf carts and lining up for two-for-one drinks. A lot of people are dancing. I watch an elegant-looking, tastefully dressed woman—I’m guessing late sixties, early seventies—walk up to the bandstand, set her purse down next to it and start dancing. She’s a good dancer, fluid and graceful. She does a series of moves from the sixties—the Twist, the Jerk, the Swim—all by herself. The song finishes; she picks up her purse and walks back to her green plastic chair.

It occurs to me, sipping my wine, that back in the late sixties, when I played in a rock band27 at Haverford College, I might have seen this very woman, or some of these other dancers, gyrating in the strobe light as we belted out anthems of youthful rebellion:

People try to put us d-down / Just because we get around …

Maybe long ago, behind some gym or fraternity house when my band was taking a break, I even shared a joint with some of these people. And now here we are, nearly fifty years later, talkin’ ’bout my generation, drinking reasonably priced wine and getting around in golf carts.

At least we’re still dancing.

The Caribbean Chillers finish another song. The lead singer says, “We’re rockin’ right here, Spanish Springs.” Then the band kicks into “Mustang Sally.” This is a great dancing song, and the Caribbean Chillers are nailing it. A large line dance forms in front of the bandstand. But my eye is drawn to one man who is not part of the line; he’s all alone in front of the bandstand, where the elegant woman was. He’s bald and large. He’s wearing a striped shirt tucked into voluminous shorts, held up by suspenders. He’s dancing like an absolute wild man, spinning, waving his arms around, doing karate moves and being exuberant and just generally not giving any kind of a shit. He’s wonderful. I am falling in love with this man from afar.

Gary Locks dancing next to, but not with, line dancers.

The song ends. I head over and introduce myself to the man. He tells me he is Gary Locks and he’s a retired lieutenant colonel, United States Air Force. He has also worked in security and for the TSA. He’s extremely cheerful. He’s seventy-two and married.

“My wife is parking the car,” he says.

Locks says he moved to The Villages from Ohio ten months ago and he loves it. “This is Disney World for adults,” he says. (Residents of The Villages say this a lot.)

I ask him about his dancing. He says he dances every night. “Since I moved here, I dropped from 270 to 240 pounds.”

I ask about the karate moves. “I learned that in the military and security,” he says. “Also, Elvis did that. I have incorporated some of his moves.”

He says his dancing is popular with the ladies. “They find me, eventually,” he says. “I’ve had girls thirteen to ninety ask me to dance.”

I ask about his suspenders. “Women love them,” he says. “I’ve had them unhook ’em.”

I offer to buy him a drink, but he shakes his head.

“I’ve never had a beer or cigarette in my life,” he says. “But I’ve had plenty of guns pointed at me.”

His wife, Gayle, joins us. I remark on her husband’s dancing.

“I just let him go,” she says.

The band starts another song, and Gary Locks, dancing machine, suspendered stud of Spanish Springs, heads back out to resume his rocking retirement.

I get back in my car and drive back to Lake Sumter Landing to check out the nightlife there. En route, I listen to WVLG, the AM radio station owned and operated by The Family. They also operate a TV channel and publish a daily newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun, that’s fat with advertising, more prosperous-looking than many big-city newspapers. It carries a respectable amount of national and international news, but it’s heaviest on happenings in The Villages—news about clubs (there are seventeen million clubs), golf tournaments, health and fitness, real estate, homeowner associations, decorating, shopping and so on. (The day I arrive, there’s an article about a Chick-fil-A franchise celebrating its tenth anniversary in The Villages. “Coleslaw isn’t a very popular item on our menu nationally,” states the franchise owner, “but it is here.”)

The WVLG DJ plays “Runaway” by Del Shannon, followed by “Higher and Higher” by Jackie Wilson. I love both of those songs. I listened to them on AM car radios in the sixties. I roll down the windows and crank up the volume.

I get to Lake Sumter Landing and I immediately realize that it is the place to be, because it is swarming with golf carts. They’re parked everywhere, row after row of them.

Eventually, I find a spot for my rental car and walk to the Town Square, where tonight’s entertainment is the Paul Vesco Band. They’re funkier than the Caribbean Chillers; in fact, when I arrive, they’re singing, “Play that funky music white boy.” There are two large herds of line dancers here. They’re dedicated and focused, and the dances they’re doing are even more complex than the ones over in Spanish Springs. They keep it up for several more songs and then the singer announces that they’re going to do a slow tune for the couples out there. The band starts playing the Etta James version of “At Last (My Love Has Come Along).” This is a slow, sensuous, achingly soulful song, so naturally the line dancers … keep right on line dancing. Nothing can stop these people from executing their steps. The band could play the William Tell Overture, or the Wedding March, and they would line-dance to it. That’s how they roll, Villages-style.

Several couples also get up and slow-dance; one couple is dancing while holding their little white dog between them, its head sticking out from between their bellies. It looks ridiculous, but nobody seems to care.

Back where these people came from—Ohio or Minnesota or New York or wherever—they would never dance in public with their dog. In fact, none of these people, these aging Boomers, would be out dancing on a random Thursday night, or pretty much any other night. But here they can dance every night, and down a few reasonably priced cocktails if they feel like it, and ride home in their golf cart. They can go golfing the next day, whatever day it is, and then go dancing again the next night, and do this again and again, every day if they want, until they die, which could be any time because nobody’s getting any younger, so why not enjoy yourself while you’re still around?

I can totally see the appeal.

I watch the dancers for a while, then walk past the vast herd of golf carts en route to my car, which now seems like a totally Squaresville vehicle for me to be driving. I return to the hotel and stick my head into the bar/dining room area, where a few people are having dinner, but nothing else is happening. It occurs to me that I’ve been here for an entire day and have yet to see anybody having sex. Maybe tomorrow.

The next morning I have breakfast at the Panera’s in downtown Lake Sumter. It’s busy, every table filled. Breakfast is a social event here. There’s free Wi-Fi, but I’m the only person in the entire restaurant using a laptop computer. I see one person looking at her phone. Everybody else is either talking or reading a newspaper. It’s eerie, like suddenly we’re back in 2003.

After breakfast, I stroll around Lake Sumter a bit, listening to the sounds of WVLG playing from speakers mounted on the lampposts. I pass Starbucks, where a group of maybe a dozen crusty old farts—regulars, by the look of them—are having coffee at some outdoor tables, telling jokes and making loud, raucous fun of each other, which they’re comfortable doing here because this is their town.

I make my way to The Villages Sales and Information Center, which is in a new building pretending that it’s an old building that was once a grand hotel. I sign up to take the official one-hour trolley tour of The Villages. There are seventeen of us on the tour, including two British couples and two African-American women, whom I mention because The Villages is 98 percent white; less than 1 percent of the residents are African-American.

We board the trolley and meet our tour guide. Her name is Carol Lynn Olson and she moved here from Ohio. To say she likes The Villages is like saying Romeo liked Juliet. Carol loves The Villages, and although she has given many trolley tours before ours, her enthusiasm never wanes, even slightly, during the hour.

“This is not a sales tour,” she tells us, the understanding being that The Villages doesn’t need to sell itself because so many people want to live here. She says she won’t be showing us houses: “In The Villages, it’s not about the house. It’s about the lifestyle.”

She starts by telling us about the ready availability and high quality of medical care here—hospitals, doctors, emergency care. She says that the emergency response time in The Villages is under four minutes, versus ten minutes nationally, and that the heart-attack-survival rate here is over 40 percent, versus 10 percent nationally.

Moving on from survival to leisure, Carol shows us some of the community recreation centers and tells us that currently The Villages has seventy-eight swimming pools, some of which are adults-only. (“If you’re like me, you don’t always want to listen to somebody else’s grandchildren yell ‘Marco’ / ‘Polo’ for three hours.”) There are twelve country clubs, and golf courses out the wazoo. “One gentleman claims to have played 681 rounds of golf in one year,” notes Carol.

One of the people on the tour is a resident of The Villages, a tan, fit-looking guy named Bob, showing around a couple of his buddies visiting from North Dakota. Carol asks Bob to tell the rest of us about his life here. He says he loves it. He plays a lot of golf, he plays pickleball,28 he plays softball, he’s in a convertible club. “I’m just so busy,” he says.

Carol says that retirees who move here are actually doing their children a favor by removing the burden of worry: “The kids are happy that Mom’s not sitting home with nothing to do.” She stresses the convenience of being able to get around by golf cart, of having everything she needs right here in The Villages, including big-name entertainment. Among the acts she has seen here are Tony Orlando, Lee Greenwood, Bobby Vinton and Lesley Gore.

“I don’t have to go anywhere,” she says.

As she talks, we’re driving past mile after mile of houses, all one-story, all the same style, all set close together on tidy lots, all colored some variation of beige or light gray. The houses are nice enough, but they blur together into one long beige-ish/gray-ish line, disappearing into the distance.

At one point, Carol touches, obliquely, on the rigid conformity of the architecture, the restrictions on landscaping and decorating. “You can make your home very unique and very personal,” she says. She sounds a little defensive.

Carol tells us a little about the history of The Villages. Her tone becomes reverent when she speaks of Founding Father Harold Schwartz: “He was a dreamer. He was a visionary.” She says that although Schwartz and his son have died, The Family is still in control: “The dream does go on.”

And you can be part of the dream; that’s the message. You don’t have to live in a hectic and disorganized and scary world that has little time for or interest in older people like you. You can come live in this safe orderly place and putt around on your custom golf cart and do pretty much whatever you want, and nobody will judge you, because this whole place is about you—not your kids, not future generations, not society in general: You. You’ve worked hard, you’ve sacrificed enough. Now it’s pickleball time, dammit.

That’s the message.

The tour ends. Carol, noting that she is being politically incorrect, wishes us a Merry Christmas. Some of the people on the tour go into the sales office to talk about houses. I head back out onto the pretend historic streets of Lake Sumter, where I encounter the two African-American women who were on the tour, and we get to chatting. They’re cousins. One of them, Ora Hardy, is a retired court reporter from the Chicago area; she’s sixty-six and looking for a warm place to settle down. She’s planning to rent a place in The Villages for a while to see how she likes it.

“I’m an older lady with a dog,” she says. “I want to be someplace where I can have a sense of safety, not have to worry about looking around.”

So she likes the security of The Villages. But she’s not sold yet. “I have real reservations about the lack of diversity.” She says there’s a “manufactured sweetness” about the way people treat her here, though she notes that this is “something that you’re used to when you’re sixty-six.”

I tell her that if she truly wants to experience the overpowering whiteness of The Villages, she needs to check out the line dancing. She and her cousin laugh. I wish her luck and we part company. I head back toward my hotel, crossing the Lake Sumter square, which is deserted. The WVLG lamppost speakers are playing “Cool Jerk.”

In the afternoon I drive over to Paddock Square, the newest of the Town Squares, which has a fake historic western motif. There are big doin’s here today: They’re lighting the Christmas tree and there’s a bunch of entertainment scheduled. The festivities start at 4, but at 2:30, when I arrive, the square and bleachers are already filling up. Soon, the whole place is full, and lines are forming at the beverage booths. This is the place to be at The Villages today.

At 4 sharp, the first act goes on. These are the Silver Rockettes, a group of ladies wearing Santa Claus capes and hats over their black-and-silver costumes. They march to the square in unison, with their hands on their hips in a certain way that has no doubt been perfected during rehearsals in a recreation center. It’s a truly wonderful look.

The Silver Rockettes get a nice hand from the crowd as they launch into their dance routine, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” the Elvis Presley version. Their choreography is patterned after the famous Radio City Music Hall Rockettes except that instead of high kicks and other fast-paced precision dance moves, the Silver Rockettes confine themselves to small, cautious steps, hand gestures and coordinated head nods. This results in the following discussion between two women near me:

FIRST WOMAN: Why aren’t they kicking?

SECOND WOMAN: Women of our age can’t kick very high.

FIRST WOMAN: Wanna bet? I’m eighty-six.

The Silver Rockettes finish “Here Comes Santa Claus” and remove their capes for their next number, “Let It Snow,” which they perform seated on a row of chairs. Here, in addition to the synchronized head nods and hand gestures, they are able to raise their feet in the air. This gets a nice hand from the crowd, but it does not impress my neighbor, the first woman, who says: “That was it? Sitting-down kicking?”

When the Silver Rockettes finish, they take a bow, don their Santa hats and capes and walk off with their hands on their hips in a certain practiced way.

Next up on the stage is Scooter the DJ, a regular in The Villages, with a good, wiseacre delivery, comical props and a stream of well-practiced jokes about subjects such as the dangers of dancing with a hip replacement. The crowd loves Scooter; he immediately gets people up and dancing. Pretty soon he has a huge crowd, including Santa and Mrs. Claus, out there doing—prepare to not be surprised—the Electric Slide.

As I’m watching this, I’m thinking two things:

1. This has to the whitest, squarest thing happening anywhere in America.

2. These people are really enjoying themselves.

The Electric Slide ends and Scooter gets the crowd doing—of course!—the “Y.M.C.A.” dance. The whole downtown area is now jammed; the lines are long at the beverage booths. Scooter announces the next act, which is the Gemstone Dancers, a group of gals in semi-western attire who perform country-style line dances.

I decide it’s time to mosey back to Lake Sumter, where I have dinner at a restaurant called City Fire. I eat at the bar and get into a conversation with the couple sitting next to me. The woman is named Debra Barran; she’s sixty-three and she loves The Villages. “On the one hand,” she says, “it’s a place where there’s a lot of older people. But the other side of the coin is, they appreciate older people.”

Her companion, who identifies himself only as Len and gives his age, unconvincingly, as thirty-nine, also loves The Villages. “This is the best place in the world,” he says. Debra nods.

I head back to my hotel. Tonight there’s dancing in the bar. A DJ named Pat Atkinson is playing excellent music, killer dance songs like Marcia Ball’s “A Fool in Love.”29 The crowd is about fifty-fifty men/women and many of them are very good dancers, obviously regulars here. At one point, they perform a line dance, but it actually looks pretty cool, for a line dance.

I drink a couple of beers and watch the crowd. I figure that if there really is a wild sex scene going on in The Villages, there should be some kind of hot pickup action happening at this bar. But all I see is dancing. Maybe they’re waiting for me to leave before they start having wild sex. I head for bed.

The next morning, I take one last stroll over to the Lake Sumter Square, where the Florida Lottery is holding a big daylong event consisting of various lottery promotions, including a chance to win a golf cart. There are a bunch of booths, a prize wheel, and tables stacked with T-shirts, water bottles and other cheap giveaway items. It’s only 9 and the event doesn’t start until 10, but already at least a hundred people have gathered. They’re sitting in plastic chairs, watching the lottery people set up. Over the lamppost speakers WVLG is playing “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” by the Swingin’ Medallions.

I check out of my hotel and head back to Miami, the disorderly, haphazard, weird, sensuous, sometimes dangerous, often insane and always unpredictable place where I live. I’m happy to get home. I like having a certain amount of disorder in my life, and I like living in a blue house. I couldn’t live in The Villages: To me, it feels too much like a giant line dance, everybody following the same steps.

But I’m not knocking the people who love The Villages. As an aging Boomer, I’m not about to criticize people of my generation who want to spend whatever time they have left doing whatever they really want to do in the company of people who don’t view them as fossils. And if they really are having wild sex up there, I say more power to them. It’s good for people our age to have sex. It upsets the children.